Archive for June 2010

The New York Times: Germany 4 England 1, match report

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 28 June 2010.  The link is here:


“When Passion Turned Reckless, England Paid The Price”

The game is up.

Much emphasis — too much emphasis — is placed upon what is supposedly the England soccer team’s greatest asset, its passion. Readers of the domestic news media, and in particular its tabloids, are regularly assured that few if any footballers are more dedicated to their cause than those in English causes. This is a false orthodoxy on which many onlookers may choke — it’s not as if say North Korea were devoid of intensity during the national anthem before the Brazil match — but it’s also something of an irrelevance. During its 4-1 defeat to Germany, England was not beaten because of inadequate passion, but because of its lack of two other Ps: proper passing and positional sense.

At first glance, the pass completion rates of Frank Lampard (78 percent) and Gareth Barry (75) in central midfield compare favorably with those of their Spanish counterparts. Xavi, rightly lauded for his role in Spain’s stellar qualifying campaign, had a completion rate after three matches of 78 percent, while Xabi Alonso had one of 81. If we are conducting a postmortem of England’s World Cup campaign, the truth is not to be found immediately in the midfield passing figures.

One part of the England game that could usefully be eliminated, but for which there is sadly no readily available statistic, is the scoop. The scoop is a slow pass, lofted around waist height, that is hit over the distance of 10-15 yards. Viewed in isolation, the scoop looks fairly innocuous; but if it’s launched at a fellow player in a congested area or, worse still, hoisted across the face of a player’s own back four, it is very difficult to control, and is thus a threat to both the team’s possession and to its defense.

We saw plenty of the scoop from England against Germany. We also saw plenty of the slash — the sliced, arcing, pass hit deep from one wing to the other. This is a technique that England’s players execute with impressive and professional regularity in the Premier League, but that too regularly ended up at the feet of an opposing defender or in touch. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Barry were all anxious and unsuccessful purveyors of the slash; on a handful of occasions, they selected these passes when a simple square pass would have sufficed.

The other main flaw was England’s positional sense, and here we may have had cause to rue the lack of genuinely defensive midfielders. Germany’s third and fourth goals arrived from counterattacks of beautiful simplicity, the result of English players left hopelessly exposed in space and without support. Take Thomas Müller’s first, which gave Germany a 3-1 lead. Here, Gareth Barry found himself on the edge of the opposition penalty area, several yards ahead of Lampard, who had just taken a charged-down free kick. Barry’s failure to play a telling through-pass was punished swiftly and severely, as Germany surged into the space directly behind him. Before Müller’s emphatic finish, we saw Lampard embark upon a futile 70-yard sprint toward his goal, at one point covering three attackers.

Muller’s second, and Germany’s fourth, told a tale of a fullback caught short by the length of the field. When the ball was floated clear of the German penalty area, it fell to the gleeful feet of Mezul Özil. The Germans found themselves in a race with John Terry. Terry has many qualities, but chasing down playmakers as quick as Pegasus is not one of them. Glen Johnson, England’s right back, was stranded a few yards from his opponent’s goal; when Germany scored, the next player to arrive back in the area after the forlorn Terry was Ashley Cole, who had made a fruitless pilgrimage from the left flank.

In the final analysis, it seems that England was undone by a surplus, not a surfeit, of passion. The positional mistakes that they made spoke of a desire and a desperation to do with their feet what the ball could have done both more safely and effectively. On one notable occasion in the first half, James Milner — a right-wing in England’s 4-4-2 system — was closer to the left touchline than Gerrard, who started on the left. In a split second of reflection, Germany’s counterattackers might have looked up ahead of them at the unguarded pastures ahead, and silently formed a plan.

And so the game is up. While the cacophony of rage over Lampard’s disallowed first-half goal will continue, as will the supposedly jovial jingoism aimed at Germany by English tabloids, a silent and stark truth will eventually stand out. In a tournament where most hotly tipped teams lined up with one genuinely defensive midfielder (Argentina’s Javier Mascherano) or even two (Brazil’s Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo), England sacrificed such pragmatism on the altar of reckless tempo. Furiously kinetic, they have been eliminated from the World Cup, playing in a fashion that while true to their buccaneering traditions was cruelly and wholly exposed. At least, as they return home, they can tell all who assail them with criticism that they went out, if not in style, then certainly in their own.

The New York Times: Football’s market correction

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 22 June 2010.  The link is here:


“Minnows Batter Reputations Of Game’s Traditional Powers”

This World Cup is not going according to plan. That much is obvious.  If we look at the tournament results so far, we quickly become aghast at the vast number of bizarre results. Italy drawing with New Zealand? England drawing with Algeria?  Spain losing to Switzerland? Uppity countries with meager FIFA rankings are queuing up to outthink and outplay their more distinguished opponents; and we can’t remember the last time a World Cup saw so many anomalies.

But, whispers an economist’s soft yet insistent voice, maybe they aren’t anomalies at all.  They’re merely a manifestation of something that we’ve seen happen to dot coms, and to the housing market. That’s right, international football is going through its bubble-burst. Let’s call it the reputation crunch.

The credit crunch, as we painfully know by now, was what economists airily call a “market correction”: when the value of overpriced shares come crashing down to their true value. Following that analogy, the reputation crunch is what we’re seeing at this World Cup, where teams hyped as titans have been laid embarrassingly low. And, like all crunches, we really should have seen it coming.

Football’s own finances have been giving us hints for years.  At the beginning of this year, UEFA published a report – “European Club Footballing Landscape” – that looked at the parlous state that the sport had giddily spent itself into.  From UEFA’s findings, one statistic in particular stood out and that was that 18 English Premier League clubs – whose number did not include Portsmouth and West Ham United, two notorious spendthrifts – were responsible for 56 percent of the total debt of all professional clubs in Europe.

At a glance, this statistic reveals one thing: that Premier League players are the most overpriced in Europe. This is something that fans worldwide claim that they’ve taken for granted, which doesn’t explain why they’re startled when England draws, 0-0, with Algeria.  Look, they proclaim, England is ranked eighth in the world; Algeria is ranked 30th.  A goalless draw is an appalling, anomalous result.

But then our economist nervously raises his hand, and says that, er, it isn’t. What’s more, he says, the market of international football began to correct itself some time before the World Cup.  Look at Algeria, he says, and who they defeated to qualify.  They defeated Egypt, the African champions and their sworn enemies.  For goodness sake, he says, look at Slovenia, a nation of 2million, who beat 300 million-strong Russia over two legs in a playoff.  These were not shocks, he says, but the logical progression of a world where talent and tactics have been truly globalized.

At the start of a tournament, the instinct of many a viewer, and no less a player or manager, is to look through the list of fixtures for matches where an easy victory is assured.  But simple wins at this level are a thing of rarity.  In fact, it’s results like Portugal’s 7-0 thrashing of North Korea that are an anomaly, coming only when the Asian team abandoned the defensive rigidity that had seen them lose by only a goal to Brazil.

No, the position is clear, and the football market is correct, no matter how much money we try to throw at it to distort the true picture. The reputations have been crunched, and the reality of the modern game is not only that anyone can beat anyone; it is that anyone will.

The New York Times: Profile of the Jabulani World Cup ball

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 16 June 2010.  The link is here:


“When Wayward Ball Meets An Unyielding Defence”

Adidas has heard much mockery of its latest, most troublesome child.  The Jabulani football has attracted all manner of critics, who decry its tendency to move mysteriously in midflight. Goalkeepers have complained in training that it is a difficult customer, a diva even. As far as all members of the anti-Jabulani crowd are concerned, footballs, like children, should be as unobtrusive as possible; they must be seen and not swerved.  That may be true. What’s probable, though, is that the Jabulani just wants to be loved.

We shouldn’t be surprised that World Cup match balls, of which the Jabulani is just the latest narcissistic edition, are seeking more and more attention as the tournaments go by.  For as long as many of us can remember, Adidas has been changing its outfits in an effort to make them more alluring.  Back in 1970, when footballs made by Adidas were far more chaste, the Telstar model had 32 panels.  By World Cup 1990, the Etrusco Unico – sleeker, sexier – was down to 20 panels. In 2006, the Teamgeist boasted a mere 14; and now we have the Jabulani, the most revealing of all, which has just eight.

To these tumbling numbers, we can add another set of stats, falling more slowly, but almost as surely.  In 1970, the World Cup witnessed 3.0 goals per game; in 1990, 2.2; in 2006, 2.3.  At the first weekend of the tournament, the tournament had seen just 13 goals in its first eight matches, on pace for a record low of 1.6 goals per game.

Of course, we can’t exclusively blame this downward trend on the increasingly high maintenance of the World Cup match ball. The growing sophistication of defensive systems has meant that teams are ever smarter at keeping out the opposition. Back in 1930, when World Cup watchers could enjoy an average of 3.8 goals as their reward for turning up to a match, there were just two defenders in a team’s rearguard. Today, the convention is to operate not with a back four, but effectively with a back six: two center backs, two fullbacks, and two defensive midfielders.  (In a sign of the times, even Brazil is doing it.)

At this point, we might even feel sorry for the Jabulani. If, after all, the ball’s primary purpose is to find the net, then it’s being largely frustrated in that aim. Perhaps this explains why, in these early matches, it has flown so wantonly off target, despite the careful attentions of some of the world’s finest forwards.  Maybe it’s not the capricious aerodynamics of a badly designed ball; maybe it’s just the Jabulani’s protest at the global obsession with zonal marking and counterattack.

Whatever the case, one mark is steadily rising: and that’s the tide of cash washing into FIFA’s accounts, which for the first time have seen an annual turnover of $1 billion. It therefore seems that the Jabulani, for all its state of undress, hasn’t harmed the beautiful game’s bank balance at all: despite the low-scoring games, the viewers are still faithfully tuning in.  But it’s worth wondering how many more panels the Adidas World Cup ball can shed, before people start to think that it’s an emperor without any clothes.

The New York Times: Steven Gerrard Profile

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times Goal blog, on 8 June 2010.  The link is here:


“England Captain Enters World Cup With A Chip On His Shoulder”

Several players, possibly even entire teams, will arrive at the World Cup suffering from a severe affliction. Its name? The World Grudge.

The World Grudge is, simply put, an unusually high level of resentment, held if not against the world at large, then most definitely against its journalists. The World Grudge is borne by those participants in the World Cup whose prospects of success have been thoroughly questioned, if not dismissed altogether.

Possibly the most famous example of the World Grudge is Diego Maradona’s Argentina at the World Cup in 1990. During that tournament held in Italy, the only things more numerous than Maradona’s curls were his snarls. Maradona was chiefly maligned because he played for Napoli, a team based in the poor south of Italy, and one that he felt was sneered upon by the Northern footballing elites of A.C. Milan, Internazionale, and Juventus. Seizing upon each slight that he was offered — of which there were many — he led a team as loathed as much as any in recent memory. This was not only because it eliminated the home nation, but also because its soccer almost made the unusually staid Brazil look adventurous.

However, Argentina showed just how effective a motivation the World Grudge could be, as it flew far on the wings of grievance. Defending the title it had won in 1986, it reached the final against what was then West Germany. During his national anthem, which was bitterly jeered by a great many Italians, Maradona was seen seething. His team lost an acrimonious final by a late, single goal; perhaps inevitably, the Argentines had two players sent off, a record that still stands.

Who, among this year’s contestants, are particularly passionate bearers of the World Grudge? Given that few men are as obliging with their innermost thoughts as Maradona, it is hard to know for sure, but there are a few candidates, the most obvious of whom is England’s Steven Gerrard. In March, immediately before a friendly match against Egypt, Gerrard took umbrage at the news media’s suggestion that England’s sole threat was Wayne Rooney.

“I think Wayne would agree with me that there are a lot of other talented players in the squad, some of whom help him to produce his best,” Gerrard, who plays for Liverpool, said without naming himself or, indeed, needing to. “If people want to think we are just a one-man team, then let them,” he continued. “They will be in for a big surprise when they play against us.”

Except they will not. Gerrard, like Maradona before him, has always responded with a particular intensity when the first droplets of doubt are inked in his direction. It is notable that three of the most striking performances of his career — the FA Cup final victory on penalties against West Ham United (2006), the 4-1 victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford (2009), and the extra-time triumph in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final against A.C. Milan — have come when he has been forced to drag Liverpool from a position of adversity.

At this moment, Gerrard could barely be in a greater quandary about his club career. This, after all, has been a season in which he saw his side take several retrograde steps. It lost its manager, Rafael Benitez, after six ultimately unsatisfying years, finished 23 points behind Chelsea and, arguably worse still, 22 points behind the loathed Manchester United. On top of that, Liverpool endured an early elimination from European competition, a field where it once ran riot.

Gerrard is therefore perfectly placed to express his World Grudge. Like Maradona, he is about to embark on the World Cup campaign as the captain of an expectant yet ailing national team, with the wind of a bitter season in his sails. This makes him a vessel that few opponents, least of all the United States in his opening match, will welcome into view.

The New York Times: Júlio César Profile

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 2 June 2010.  The link is here:


“Brazil’s Best Player: A Goalkeeper?”

How did this happen?

No, not Brazil’s ranking among the favorites to win the World Cup. That’s absolutely fine. No, I mean the other thing. How is it that arguably Brazil’s best player, the player possibly most crucial to their championship hopes, is its goalkeeper?

A revered Brazilian goalkeeper was once as rare as a tapdancing fish. Aside from Gilmar, who won the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1958 and 1962, the position has often been seen — somewhat unfairly — as Brazil’s weakest link. In a nation where so many players shine with their feet, those who distinguish themselves with their hands have been forever second-class.

Yet Júlio César — his name appropriate for someone who may soon conquer the globe — has changed all that. A 30-year old who plays for Internazionale of Milan, he was in 2009 voted the best goalkeeper in Italy’s first division, traditionally the world’s most defensive league. But that, though impressive, is not his greatest accolade. The greatest proof of César’s ability is that Jose Mourinho, the high priest of defensive parsimony, trusted him.

Mourinho built his team upon the shot-stopping of César. In 2009-10, Internazionale won a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League; in the latter tournament, Inter restricted Chelsea and Barcelona, who between them scored 201 goals in that year’s domestic leagues, to just three goals in four matches. This, by no coincidence, was a run that saw César at his most magnificent.

Perhaps, somewhere above South Africa, a ghost is giggling nervously to himself. Many years before the reign of César, in the 1940s and 1950s, Moacir Barbosa was once regarded as the world’s finest goalkeeper. However, his terrible error in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, in front of a record home crowd of 200,000, gave a 2-1 victory to Uruguay. The defeat gave rise to nationwide scenes akin to mourning, and Barbosa spent the rest of life as an outcast within his own country. Just weeks before his death, he remarked that “under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years, but my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”

In Roman times, a triumphant general would parade round his ecstatic city for a day, supposedly accompanied by a slave whose job it was to whisper in his ear that he was only mortal. Maybe, following César’s momentous club season, Barbosa’s ghost would like to whisper something similar, knowing how swiftly football’s fates can turn.

For the moment, though, these are remarkable times. Four years ago, few would have wagered that, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, Robinho would have fallen so woefully short of his erstwhile billing as “the new Pelé.” Fewer still would have wagered that Kaka would be emerging from perhaps the most ineffectual season of his stellar career. And fewest of all would have argued passionately that, in the Brazil team, the position of goalkeeper would be no longer one of irony, but one of iron.